Two bond measures on the ballot Tuesday in Fairfax County would authorize a total of $80 million in debt for public safety construction projects and parkland acquisition.
The larger of the two measures, at $60 million, proposes to spend $29 million to modernize the county's 911 emergency call center or build a new one and about $25 million to finish an expansion of the Jennings Judicial Center. The remaining money would partially fund construction of a headquarters for the Hazardous Materials Response Unit and the renovation of several fire stations.
The second, $20 million bond would be used to buy parkland and build athletic facilities, including a center for girls' softball.
County officials expressed concern that the debate over whether to raise the state sales tax in Northern Virginia may have drowned out discussion of the local Fairfax measures. As a result, voters may not understand why the bonds are important, they said.
"I hope the public will support both bond referendums because they are desperately needed; they are absolutely critical," said Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence).
Opponents, however, said it would be irresponsible of the county to take on more debt amid a worsening financial picture of declining revenue and state funding cuts.
They also pointed out that four years ago, the county got voter approval for two similar referendums: an $87 million measure for park acquisition and a bond of nearly $100 million for the judicial center expansion.
Arthur Purves, for one, wants to know what happened to all that money. "The county's use of bonds is irresponsible. It's a travesty," said Purves, president of the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance, an anti-tax lobbying group. "The voters should absolutely defeat these bonds."
County officials defended this year's measures. They said the Jennings center expansion turned out to be more expensive than originally estimated. With the additional funds, the county can bring the building up to state code and finish the parking garage, they said.
"The bond is critical to parking at the courthouse, and that serves the public," Connolly said. "Right now, if you are running late for a court appearance, you are in trouble. It can take up to 20 minutes to find space."
Public safety officials added that the need for a 911 center upgrade also is pressing. Currently, the center is housed in a converted elementary school in Annandale that was built in 1969. Since the conversion to police use 17 years ago, the number of 911 calls has gone up 80 percent and continues to rise. But the building cannot hold more operators and dispatchers, Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said.
"We've got a great police department and a great fire department, and when we respond to things, we do things right," Manger said. "But if people can't get an answer on the phone to their 911 calls, then all the good cops and firemen in the world are of no use."
The park bond on Tuesday's ballot precedes a similar proposal for 2004 that could exceed $90 million, said Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn (R-Dranesville). Mendelsohn said the county needs both measures because it is running out of time to preserve what open space remains.
"We can't wait two more years," he said. "From a quality-of-life point of view, it's a critical need for us now."
Sally Ormsby, who chairs a pro-park group called Park Partners, added: "Parkland is quickly being consumed by development. It is essential to acquire new land for parks as soon as possible."